Consolidate and Close Prisons!

Make the system safer while lowering costs!

The Texas prison system can make us safer, at less cost to taxpayers, if we close those units which are hardest to staff or need massive investment to keep open. Texas can reduce its budget busting, multi-billion dollar system even more by changing how we handle certain low-risk, nonviolent offenders.

After a decades-long decline in crime, Texas’ prison population finally declined in recent years, allowing closure of eight prison units since 2013. Simply consolidating inmate populations would allow the state to shutter two more prisons. Taking the next step and continuing to ratchet down overly punitive sentences for nonviolent offenses would allow the state to shutter several more.

RIGHT NOW while the agency is developing its new budget, we should demand that first step: consolidation and closure. Closing just one unit can save taxpayers millions. Some existing units require millions of new dollars invested just to stay open. TDCJ asked the legislature for $55.6 million for repairs last session alone.

But its not “all about the money.” This is also about safety. Many facilities are severely short staffed, and the state cannot find people willing to go to these locations for these jobs. At the end of last year, system turnover had reached 28% a year, with some units facing a mass exodus of more than half their staff in 2017. TDCJ has thousands of open guard positions. Staff shortages make prisons less safe for guards, inmates and the surrounding communities. That’s why the union representing TDCJ correctional officers has come out in favor of policy changes to support more prison closures targeting understaffed units. Their members are being placed in danger by prioritizing “bigger” over “better.”

Bi-partisan coalition for reform

The following organizations support reducing costs by consolidating and closing some units: Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), Texas Appleseed, ACLU of Texas, Austin Justice Coalition, and Just Liberty.

Act now! Tell the head of the prison system to bring lawmakers a real proposal to reduce costs by consolidating units!

Every agency is RIGHT NOW creating its new budget for the 2019 legislative session. TDCJ’s new budget could identify units for closure that:

  • have faced the most serious staffing problems
  • need significant repair
  • surrounding communities believe should be redeveloped to meet local needs
  • are underutilized for other reasons.

Prison closures will solidify criminal justice reform gains

Texas prisons can be consolidated and closed for two major reasons: there’s less crime, and fewer people are being sentenced to prison for certain nonviolent crimes that they do commit. That’s the Texas “miracle.” We reduced sentences for common crimes and saw our overall rate of criminality decrease just as much as anywhere else in the nation. We are on to something.

The agency should also identify policy changes which would prioritize prison spending based on public safety, including adjustments to sentencing paradigms applied by Lone Star judges and juries. In Oklahoma, voters in 2016 (on the same ballot on which Donald Trump was elected president by a 2-1 statewide margin), overwhelmingly voted to reduce user-level drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. If Texas did that, it would be possible both to pay for additional drug treatment and still register savings in the budget by closing more prisons.

Closing underutilized prisons NOW ensures that lawmakers think twice before ratcheting up penalties again in response to tomorrow’s headline crime. Once those buildings are shuttered and razed, taxpayers are not going to want to go down this expensive road again and will be looking for more ways to safely extend the Texas miracle into the next decade.